What is the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA)?

What is the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA)?

The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act or COPPA is a federal law enacted in 1998 that protects the privacy of children under the age of 13 in relation to internet usage. The goal of the law is to give parents control over what information their young children are able to access while using the internet. The law takes into account the dynamic nature of the internet and applies to commercial websites and online services that collect, use, or disclose personal information from children under the age of 13, as well as third parties that may also collect personal information from children, such as information collected by an ad network for the purposes of targeted marketing campaigns.

Moreover, the COPPA also applies to operators of general websites or online services with actual knowledge that they are collecting, using, or disclosing personal information of children under the age of 13. The COPPA also outlines various factors in determining whether or not a website is specifically designed or marketed towards children including the subject matter, visual content, use of animated characters, and the music or audio content of the website, among a host of others. Under the COPPA, operators of websites and online services are obliged to do the following:

What forms of personal information are covered by the COPPA?

The COPPA defines personal information in the following categories:

What are the penalties for violating COPPA?

Operators of online websites who are found guilty of violating the COPPA can face a fine of up to $43,792 for each individual violation. These fines are issued by the Federal Trade Commission, and are based upon a variety of factors. These factors include the severity of the violation in question, whether the operator has previously been found guilty of violating the COPPA, the number of children involved in the violation, the type and amount of personal information that was collected, whether the information was shared with third parties, and the size of the website or company accused of said violation. Based on these various factors, some online businesses have been fined hundreds of millions of dollars in relation to COPPA violations.

To provide an example of the potential severity of COPPA fines, Google LLC and its subsidiary YouTube LLC were forced to pay fines totaling 170 million in 2019 to the FTC and New York Attorney General respectively. These fines were based upon Youtube’s failure to provide consent to parents in relation to personal information they collected from children using the website. It was alleged that YouTube then used this information to generate millions of dollars through targeted ad campaigns. The settlement required Google and Youtube to pay $136 million to the FTC and another $34 million dollars to the New York Attorney General due to these companies’ violation of the COPPA.

Alternatively, the popular social media website TikTok, previously known as Musical.ly, was fined 5.7 million dollars by the FTC in 2019 in relation to COPPA violations. In the lawsuit, the FTC alleged that the website illegally collected personal information from children. Despite the fact the operators of Musical.ly knew how many children were using the app, they still failed to collect parental consent before collecting names, email addresses, and other forms of personally identifiable information. As a result, the actions of the company constituted a COPPA violation.

The goal of the COPPA was to provide children with some modicum of protection when sharing their personal information over the internet. While COPPA cannot prevent children from lying about their age when signing up for online accounts or sites, it does provide parents with an avenue for recourse when a child’s personal information is disclosed improperly. Moreover, it sets a guideline for operators of websites to follow in order to avoid this improper disclosure. As children are obviously not adults who can legally consent to have their information collected over the internet, it is important that there is legislation in place to protect their personal information and privacy.

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